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When stress hits, we fall into ‘coping combos’

/ Source: contributor

For Tiffanie Williams, a marketing executive from Boston, it’s chips and salsa and sappy movie marathons. For Paul Niemi, a communications specialist from Manhattan, it’s Chinese food and long weekends in bed. And for Susan Biali, a physician and life coach who splits her time between Vancouver, Canada, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, it’s skipped meals and late nights glued to the computer.

Say hello to the many faces of stress. While health experts urge people to exercise, eat right and get enough sleep in order to keep stress and its harmful effects at bay, many of us tend to fall into all-too-predictable and all-too-unhealthy patterns when life gets out of whack — we smoke more, we drink more, we ignore the gym and make tracks for the shopping mall.

But the place stress seems to hammer us the hardest is right where we live: in our bedrooms and bellies.

In an October 2007 American Psychological Association study, nearly half of the 2,000 surveyed (48 percent) said they’d lost sleep during the last month thanks to stress, 36 percent said they’d skipped a meal during the last month because of pressure and 43 percent said stress caused them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods.

Yes, stress makes us eat more. Or eat less. It keeps us awake at night. Or sends us into hiding in our beds. These stress responses often pair up to form “coping combos.” Some people are sleepers who can’t eat while others are insomniacs who eat too much. There are non-sleepers who pick at their food and sleepyheads who repeatedly surrender to the siren song of the starch cupboard.

“I definitely eat more when I’m stressed,” says Julie Case, a 37-year-old freelance writer from Seattle whose biggest worries involve finances and deadlines. “And I don’t sleep as well, either. I’ll find myself sitting up late watching TV instead of going to bed. I think that subconsciously I realize if I let my brain slow down for a minute, it’s going to spin up, and I won't sleep.”

Case says she’d much prefer to react to stress by working out, but she’s stuck in non-sleeper/eater mode.

Tiffanie Williams, the 36-year-old marketing maven from Boston, can empathize.

“I have friends who can’t eat when they’re stressed and friends who can’t sleep,” says Williams, whose panics buttons are pushed by the current economic situation. “The not eating thing is always an envious alternative, but that’s a bug I wasn’t given. With me, snacking is the first line of response. After a stressful week, I’ll find myself on the couch with chips and salsa and a bunch of Lifetime movies, then I’ll finish that off with ice cream. And I’m the kind of person that bad sleepers hate. I really have no problem sleeping.”

Beverly Thorn, a health psychologist and stress expert at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, says that while there aren’t any statistics on the most common “coping combos,” our sundry stress responses are partly cognitive, partly emotional and partly biological.

“We all learn coping mechanisms at an early age,” she says. “We learn to cope well or poorly by observing what our caretakers do. If your parents are drinking alcohol every night to the point of inebriation to manage their stress, you’re much more likely to do the same thing. If you see a parent climb into bed and pull the covers over their head when things get tough, that’s more likely to be a coping mechanism that you’ll develop later in life.”

Biology partly to blame

But that’s only part of our programming. Thorn says we also have biological predispositions may also cause us to act certain ways when we’re under the gun.

“Everybody’s biology is a bit different,” she says. “I might respond to stress by getting more acid production in my stomach which will make me want to not eat at all or make me want to eat comfort foods that will absorb the acid.”

Paul Niemi, who does public relations for a publishing house, turns to carbohydrates, caffeine and sleep to help him cope with the pressures of the job — not to mention those crammed New York subways where “people are standing under your armpits the whole way downtown.”

“My work can be very high stress, we do some very high profile projects — like big events for celebrity authors,” he says. “And when I get stressed, I need more energy so I’ll load up on the caffeine and then I’ll crave more fatty foods and carbohydrates — deep-fried whatever — and lots of Chinese food.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Susan Biali, a non-eater/non-sleeper.

“When I’m stressed, even though I know I need to get a good solid eight hours sleep, that’s when I tend to not want to go to bed,” says Biali, who travels constantly — a classic stressor — for her medical practice and coaching business. “I make up all kinds of excuse to stay up late, reading emails, making changes to my Web site, anything I can come up with so I don’t have to go to bed.”

Biali, who has a degree in nutrition, also tends to shy away from food when she's stressed.

“I tend to put off breakfast until mid-morning, and will often skip lunch or dinner entirely,” she says. “I'll usually lose weight dramatically and people will comment on it.”

Reaching for a quick fix

To those who respond to stress by reaching for the Marlboros, Maker’s Mark or a take-out menu, those cravings which can seem illogical or ill-conceived are actually rooted in a natural emotional response, says Thorn.

“When we’re feeling out of control, we want to escape, so we grab for the quick fixes — cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate, chips,” she says. “And when it comes to food, we tend to gravitate towards things that are easy and things that seem to give us comfort like high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods. We’re genetically programmed to crave that sort of thing and I suspect there’s some kind of trigger mechanism that allows us to give in to those cravings a little more when we’re stressed out.”

The good news, she says, is that just because there’s a really, really old program running in our head that urges us to seize the Danish (or the dirty martini) when the you-know-what hits the fan, it’s not a foregone conclusion that we have to pay attention to it.

After all, not all of us turn into drinking, smoking, snacking and sleep-deprived stress machines.

According to the APA research, many people used healthy coping behaviors to decompress, such as listening to music (54 percent), reading (52 percent), exercising or walking (50 percent), spending time with family and friends (40 percent) and praying (34 percent).

Paul Niemi, the snacker/non-sleeper New Yorker, says over the last few months, he’s been able to steer his brain away from carbohydrates and onto creativity.

“I’ve taken up art, both buying it and creating it,” he says. “It’s become a surrogate for going out and eating and drinking. It’s been a great escape and it feeds my creative soul. When I do it, I go to bed completely calm and wake up rested and feeling like I’ve really accomplished something.”

Exercise has proven to be a big stress reliever for Biali, who started flamenco dancing five years ago and now does it professionally.

“It’s really saved me,” she says. “It’s a fabulous outlet — so expressive, so powerful.”

Especially when it comes to stomping out stress, says Thorn.

“To me, there’s nothing more important than physical exercise when it comes to stress management,” she says. “I tell my patients, before you reach for the glass of wine or that Snickers bar, put on some tennis shoes and walk around the block a couple of times. And take your dog — he’s probably stressed, too.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."